Is ESPN playing political football with Hank Williams Jr.?
Hank Williams Jr. during a promo for Monday Night Football in 2011.
Are you ready for some political football?
ESPN is welcoming Hank Williams Jr. back on "Monday Night Football," and it probably wouldn’t mind if all his rowdy friends who cheered his criticism of then-President Barack Obama came with him.
The cable network says politics has nothing to do with bringing back Williams, who opened the NFL prime-time telecast from 1989 until his 2011 remarks on Fox News about Obama.
That may be true. But divisions have deepened in Trump Era America. ESPN can’t afford to exacerbate erosion of its reach already imperiled by consumers abandoning traditional cable TV service. And politics is the prism through which practically everything everywhere is viewed these days.
To be sure, ESPN is eager enough to dispel the perception among some on the political right that it tilts left that it has been commissioning research to examine the matter over the last two years or so. The study’s latest findings — that the vast majority of viewers detect no bias — were made public this week at about the same time as news broke of Williams’ return from six years in purgatory.
Make of that what you will.
For its part, ESPN said, "Fans told us they missed it, so we’re excited to bring this popular segment back to ESPN for the 2017 NFL season with some new twists."
The weekly variation of Williams’ "All My Rowdy Friends" will return with the season opener Sept. 11 when the Vikings meet the Saints in Minnesota.
ESPN pulled the plug on Williams six years ago after a Fox News appearance in which the singer compared Obama playing golf with House speaker John Boehner with Adolf Hitler taking to the links with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Comparing someone to Hitler at the time was unusual enough to make someone sit up and take notice. Ditto for Williams’ declaration that Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden were "the enemy," which again barely registers in today’s coarsened, supercharged environment.
ESPN was probably not averse to change, either, seeing both Williams and his song as dated and diminished assets after more than 20 years.
An apolitical rationale for reinstatement would be an eagerness to evoke nostalgia for a time when "Monday Night Football" was distinctive and appointment viewing for fans and non-fans alike, not merely one of three prime-time games per week.
Brad Biggs, Rich Campbell, Dan Wiederer, David Haugh and Mike Mulligan make their predictions for the Bears’ 2017 season.
(Brad Biggs, Rich Campbell, Dan Wiederer, David Haugh)
For die-hards, today’s "MNF" sometimes is the tail end of an NFL week of watching one game Thursday night, another Sunday morning, two more plus bits and pieces of other games Sunday afternoon and yet another game Sunday night. And that doesn’t count college football and other sports.
Rather than a question of being ready for some football, it’s verging on how much more can anyone take.
Anything that makes "MNF" more than just another game has value. If some people want to hear it as Barney the Dinosaur’s "I love you, you love me …," ESPN isn’t likely to complain.
But the network isn’t copping to anything, dismissing suggestions of a political tie as little more than media commentary. This is a network that would love to go back to the days when the big bias accusation it faced was its obsession with the Yankees and Red Sox to the exclusion of everyone else in baseball.
Historically a phenomenal moneymaker for parent Walt Disney, ESPN has raised concerns among Wall Street analysts lately, despite continuing to be a ratings powerhouse in demographics that set advertisers all aflutter. Among men and all adults ages 18-34, 18-49 and 25-54, it finished No. 1 last year for a third successive year.
Its problem is rights payments to carry the NFL and other major sports continue to rise. Plus its business model is threatened by consumers who may choose to pull the plug on cable subscriptions that have them subsidizing ESPN whether they watch it or not.
The so-called cord-cutters, who bypass traditionally bundled cable subscription packages, have eaten into revenue and the number of homes ESPN is in. This has spurred staff cuts, pushing out several popular and talented journalists, and scaling back some programming ambitions.
Some conservative critics have said another factor in its shrinking reach is political bias. They point to how ESPN covered the national anthem protests of quarterback Colin Kaepernick and others, honored Caitlyn Jenner, fired analyst Curt Schilling and featured gay Rams draft pick Michael Sam.
There’s also a belief among some that viewers miss the idea of ESPN as some sort of all-sports oasis from the angst of issue-driven news found elsewhere.
"I felt that the old-school viewers were put in a corner," longtime ESPN "SportsCenter" anchor Linda Cohn said earlier this spring in a radio interview, as reported by the New York Times. "If anyone wants to ignore that fact, they’re blind."
The latest ESPN-sponsored study on perceptions, conducted last month by New York-based Langer Research Associates, found perceptions of political bias have not hurt its business in a substantive way.
Barry Blyn, ESPN’s vice president of original content and brand intelligence, pointed in a blog post to the fact that 64 percent of those surveyed believed ESPN was striking the right mix of sports news and political issues, 10 percent didn’t have an opinion and 8 percent believed it didn’t do enough when it came to political issues.
People who identified themselves as strong conservatives ranked ESPN 7.2 on a scale of 1 to 10, while Republicans scored it a 7.1, each 0.5 higher than in an October version of the survey. Strong liberals and Democrats each reportedly pegged the network at 7.0.
Blyn said of those who discerned a bias in ESPN’s programming, 30 percent felt it was too conservative. But left unmentioned was what percentage of the total that represented and how many thought ESPN had a liberal slant.
It turns out only around 30 percent of the survey group cited a bias. So that 30 percent too conservative figure is about 9 percent of the total. Among those who felt there was a bias, an ESPN spokesman said 63 percent believed it to be liberal, which translates to around 19 percent.
More interesting, perhaps, is that the 30 percent figure for those who saw bias remained flat between October and May despite accelerated talk of political bias since the presidential election in November on stories such as whether the Super Bowl champ Patriots would visit the White House.
ESPN fares better in some respects than the news media at large. A Gallup poll of U.S. adults released in April found 62 percent believed the media favored one political party, up from around 50 percent back in 2000, while just 27 percent said the media don’t play favorites.
As with ESPN, however, among those who perceived political bias in the news media, 64 percent told Gallup they believed the tilt was toward the Democrats and 22 percent believed the media favored Republicans.
Not everyone is going to buy ESPN’s research. "Liberal ESPN Commissions Survey to Prove ESPN Has No Liberal Bias," a Breitbart.com headline said.
Not everyone is going to buy its rationale for bring back Hank Williams Jr.
But smarting from the loss of households and valued on-camera personalities, it has every reason to want to go back to the days when accusations of bias focused on its obsession with the Yankees and Red Sox to the exclusion of everyone else in baseball.
Whether an old tune everyone knows can transport anyone to another time is uncertain.